NSA Docs Show Blueprint for US Economic Espionage
When disclosures from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden were first published by journalists, government officials in the United States insisted that US intelligence agencies do not engage in economic espionage. But, as the revelations continued to trickle out and expose the duplicity of this assertion, officials shifted to suggesting that any economic espionage is not done to benefit the bottom lines of US corporations.
Now, a copy of a secret 2009 report [PDF], the Quadrennial Intelligence Community Review, from the Office of Director for National Intelligence (ODNI), which is headed by James Clapper, has been published by The Intercept. It was provided by Snowden and shows “intelligence community” plans to acquire “proprietary information” from companies around the world and assess whether and how “findings would be useful to US industry.”
Clapper in September of last year declared in a statement denying allegations of economic espionage, “What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of – or give intelligence we collect to – US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.”
“As we have said previously, the United States collects foreign intelligence – just as many other governments do – to enhance the security of our citizens and protect our interests and those of our allies around the world,” Clapper added.
Former NSA director Keith Alexander was asked in an Australia Financial Review interview in May whether it was a “credible argument” that the US is different from China because it “does not engage in spying to make its private citizens rich.”
Alexander answered, “It is to me. Specifically, we use intelligence to help protect our nation and to ensure we make the best possible policy decisions. We do not steal data to help our commercial industries.”
Yet, in this 2009 report, a set of ideas were developed to “mitigate strategic and institutional risk” against “competitor states” and to help the US maintain its “world standing.” The ideas were intended to influence “agenda items for the intelligence community and its partners” from 2009 to as late as 2025.
The fear was that, by 2025, a “bloc of states” could seek to “undermine US geostrategic leadership by denying access to “key emerging technologies.” The “technological capacity of foreign multinational corporations could outstrip that of US corporations.”
“Entrepreneurial tactics to maintain a technological advantage,” would be needed. “This concept rests on a multi-pronged, systematic effort to gather open source and proprietary information through overt means, clandestine penetration (through physical and cyber means), and counterintelligence,” according to the report.
Suggested plans to combat a “China/Russia/India/Iran-centered bloc,” which could challenge “US supremacy,” included “data exfiltration,” “direct penetration,” and “money mastery.”
“US intelligence officers and sensitive sources will need to move data in an unattributable and undetected way, sometimes from within commercial entities possessing great technical prowess and robust cyber and electronic security protective procedures.”
“Direct penetration” could occur as follows, “In denied or more restrictive environments such as state-supported R&D [research and development] centers, the IC [intelligence community] would continue to apply human intelligence (HUMINT) tradecraft and employ HUMINT-enabled close access collection.” And “cyber operations” would “sustain close-access collection, frequently by second and third parties, to not public and/or covert centers of innovation by implanting applications (i.e., bots) that run automated tasks and sensors in software and hardware used by foreign researchers and manufacturers, and by conducting computer network exploitation of foreign R&D intranets.”
In other words, economic espionage would make it possible to scoop up trade secrets from foreign researchers and manufacturers that could be used to benefit the United States.
The section on “money mastery” suggests US intelligence agencies could clandestinely use “human and technical means, including sophisticated tracking software, to access closely held market, financial and business data, be it inside corporations, foreign governments or other institutions.”
Graphics in the report show when, where and how those compiling these ideas thought these espionage tactics might be employed.
“The Caucasus region becomes a flashpoint after the discovery of vast new energy reserves under the Caspian Sea. As China, Russia, Iran, the European Union and the United States jostle for political influence, ethnic hostilities draw them toward armed conflict.
In response, the graphic continues, “The United States quickly deploys multidisciplinary teams to the region, making heavy use of non-official cover. These teams carry in highly secure data exfiltration gear, erect a signals intelligence capability and build a human collection network.”
Has this scenario been unfolding amidst the crisis and conflict between Russia and Ukraine?
Guardian contributor Nafeez Ahmed argued in March that “resource scarcity” and “competition to dominate Eurasian energy corridors” were behind “Russian militarism and US interference.”
“Both powers are motivated by the desire to ensure that a geostrategically pivotal country with respect to control of critical energy pipeline routes remains in their own sphere of influence,” Ahmed wrote.
Ahmed cited Professor R. Craig Nation, Director of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, who over a decade ago declared in a NATO publication:
Ukraine is increasingly perceived to be critically situated in the emerging battle to dominate energy transport corridors linking the oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian basin to European markets… Considerable competition has already emerged over the construction of pipelines. Whether Ukraine will provide alternative routes helping to diversify access, as the West would prefer, or ‘find itself forced to play the role of a Russian subsidiary,’ remains to be seen.”
In another graphic, India and Russia are “pursuing high-temperature superconductivity, which would yield a significant economic advantage to the first adopter. But four separate streams of intelligence, when put together, yield a new insight—the two countries are working together.”
A team of assembled experts would assess whether it is likely that there will be a breakthrough by India and Russia and whether the impact of this would be significant. Intelligence would show they had a “secure lead” over the US in this area. As a result, “separate clandestine approaches to India and russia to break up the partnership” would occur.” Cyber operations would be conducted against research facilities, “as well as the intellectual ‘supply chain’ supporting these facilities” in the two countries.
The US could then assess “whether and how its findings would be useful to US industry.”
Glenn Greenwald, in his story on this report, shared that an ODNI spokesman, Jeffrey Anchukaitis, insisted in an email that ‘the United States—unlike our adversaries—does not steal proprietary corporate information to further private American companies’ bottom lines,’ and that ‘the Intelligence Community regularly engages in analytic exercises to identify potential future global environments, and how the IC could help the United States Government respond.’ The report, he said, ‘is not intended to be, and is not, a reflection of current policy or operations.'”
The issue with all of the above claims is that in order to believe them one would have to induce themselves into a state of ignorance.
German newspaper Der Spiegel reported in March that the NSA had targeted the Chinese corporation, Huawei, “the world’s second largest network equipment supplier.” Beginning in 2009, a “special unit” infiltrated Huawei’s “network and copied a list of 1,400 customers as well as internal documents providing training to engineers on the use of Huawei products, among other things.” And, as the newspaper pointed out, “The company produces smartphones and tablets, but also mobile phone infrastructure, WLAN routers and fiber optic cable — the kind of technology that is decisive in the NSA’s battle for data supremacy.”
The NSA, along with Britain’s spy agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), infiltrated the computer network of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In January 2008, the NSA reported it had obtained data on individual petroleum-exporting countries it had not previously been able to obtain.
Der Spiegel also reported that the NSA targeted a “cooperative used by more than 8,000 banks worldwide” for international transactions called the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). Having covert access to this financial data would seem to fit in with the goal of “money mastery” called for in the 2009 report.
Snowden additionally revealed that NSA targeted the Brazilian oil company, Petrobras. This news led Brazil president Dilma Rousseff to suggest that if what was alleged in the documents was proven to be true it would be “industrial espionage.”
What is clear is that not only does the US engage in economic espionage, but it does so because officials in government believe this is necessary to maintain America’s competitive edge in the world. Keeping capitalism burgeoning in the country is treated as a national security issue, and that translates into the rationale for infiltrating companies to steal proprietary information.
One can suppose that spying for economic security is as legitimate as spying to protect the security of US military interests. However, the US does not want to have a genuine, objective and level-headed conversation about economic espionage because it does not want to tolerate arguments that it has been a predator like China. So, there is no way it would be possible to have a debate about what should be acceptable if Snowden had not released this information.
At its core, the 2009 report is a blueprint for advancing the interests of empire and engaging in dangerous resource wars. Engaging in such spy operations would not benefit the people of the world and, worse, they would contribute to the type of activity that fuels climate change and environmental destruction.